By Valerie Herskowitz
How I ended up here is a great mystery to me, because I never anticipated owning a small Micro Enterprise that trains and employs individuals with developmental disabilities, let alone a chocolate business! My background is as a speech pathologist for the past 38 years where I owned and operate a facility that provided occupational and speech therapy needs. I had no retail experience. But here I am, and I’d like to tell you our story so that perhaps you also may look outside the box for opportunities for your adult child on the spectrum.
Our story started approximately five years ago when I became interested in cake decorating as a hobby, certainly not as an occupation. So I signed up for a series of classes and started making cakes for everyone I knew. In addition, I needed to know how to bake cakes to decorate, so I was busy in the kitchen baking and decorating cakes for every birthday, anniversary, and special occasion. My son, Blake, who was almost 20 years old at that time, and always enamored by food, began to show a great deal of interest in what I was doing in the kitchen. So, I begin to incorporate him into my hobby, and with appropriate techniques that I adapted to fit his abilities, he became quite the cupcake and cookie baker. Now just as an aside, I do need to let you know that Blake would not be considered a high functioning individual as he is nonverbal and requires 24 hour supervision. In addition, he hadn’t ever shown any great interest towards any activity to date. But the baking seemed to capture his attention so I moved forward with this activity with great vigor.
My interest in cake decorating turned into a desire to further my pastry skills, so after investigating what it would take to enroll in a baking and pastry class at the local culinary college, I decided instead to hire and work with a private chef, which I did for approximately 18 months. At this point, I was trained as a pastry chef. Again, the techniques I was using required a great deal of practice, and Blake was by my side during many of these sessions. The pastry arts also includes chocolate making. And though the chef I worked with didn’t instruct me in the details of the art, he did introduced me to some simple techniques. This peaked my interest and I sought out a school which specifically trained people in the skills needed for chocolate making, and after six months, I became a certified chocolatier with Blake serving as my assistant!
During this entire time, I was also trying to figure out what I was going to do once Blake turned 22 and would be graduating from high school. Though I live in a quite large metropolitan community, I was unable to find any program that would meet his needs. I went from one facility to another, had meetings after meetings, but was unable to organize any agency who was willing to start a program for adults like my son. So though I had planned far in advance, when Blake graduated in May 2013, I had no structured program for him. But we were still making chocolate and baking. Our family and friends were delighted by the treats we brought them, and it was at that time I realized I had to either move forward with the pastry arts as a real business, or discontinue it as an avid hobby as chocolate is quite expensive. Though I had no idea what was involved, we decided that we would move forward with this venture, and The Chocolate Spectrum was born.
For the first year, it was just Blake and me. And me and me and me. I gave new meaning to the proverbial term, chief cook and bottle-washer as I was literally the chief cook and bottle-washer! But we did turn out some terrific products. The task of learning to sell them was the next step. I have to say I’m still somewhere on the learning curve for this challenge. Selling these days involves an advanced education in the field of social media. On a very limited budget, I learned to develop my own website, Facebook page, Twitter, email list, etc.
After about a year, I decided it was time for Blake to have more social interaction and to reach out to our community as I knew services were so limited for others as well. Long story short, we now have eight individuals that work with us and are now able to provide limited employment options in addition to training.
Micro Enterprise is a great option for some individuals with developmental disabilities. It can provide them with the flexibility that they may need in the workplace as well as being able to take an interest or motivation and turn it in to something that creates purpose in their life. For instance, if your child is a great artist, there are many opportunities for art shows that feature artists with special abilities. Or, if he has an interest in something unique, there are opportunities to advertise that special talent in online venues.
When I observe individuals with developmental disabilities in the typical workplace, it’s often not their lack of job skills that create the biggest challenges. Usually it’s a combination of the social demands and the sensory overstimulation. If a person owns their own business, they hold the power to regulate the social situations as well as the impact of the sensory environment.
In most cases, individuals with unique abilities will require some level of support. That support will vary from individual to individual. It may necessitate someone to assist with setting up of the business, marketing, sales, bookkeeping, etc. There may be a need for some capital to launch the enterprise as it would be for any new endeavor. But there are some community resources which may be available to the individual. In some communities, Vocational Rehabilitation will be available to help with training and/or start up costs. Agencies such as SCORE provide free training and assistance for small business owners.
Don’t discount individuals with special abilities. They often are creative problem solvers, have had a history of dealing with difficult situations, are often persistent, are willing to ask for help and have learned to be resourceful. All of these characteristics can contribute to a successful entrepreneur.
Valerie has been a speech and language pathologist for over 38 years. She was the founder of Dimensions Therapy Center. She was the recipient of the Stevie Lifetime Achievement Award for her work with autistic and special needs children and has also been honored for starting two innovative community programs, Mothers of Special Needs Individuals (MOSI) and the National Autism Registry (NARY) Family Club. She is the author of Autism and Computers: Maximizing Independence Through Technology and Always Leave Them Laughing, which is a fiction-based book that deals with the subject of autism and what will happen when 1 out 67 individuals are adults with autism. She has lectured all over the world on this subject of technology and computers. Presently, Valerie is an adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University, where she teaches and directs the autism courses for the Department of Speech-Language Pathology. Valerie is also the mother of a 24 year old son with autism. She is also the President of the National Autism Registry, on the Advisory Board for the US Autism and Asperger Association, and is the President of the Florida Association for Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists.